LEONARDO DICAPRIO is one of more than 30 actors to play J. Edgar Hoover, whose shrouded life makes him a tough target for actors.
The list includes Bob Hoskins, Jack Warden, Ned Beatty, and Treat Williams. Ernest Borgnine played him twice. So did Broderick Crawford, once on "Saturday Night Live."
Over time, Hoover portrayals have become less reverential - the propaganda of "The FBI Story" (1959) gave way to the gossipy Hoover Vs. Kennedy soap opera of several TV miniseries in the 1970s and '80s. A few years ago, "Public Enemy" depicted Hoover as the opportunistic architect of the modern surveillance state, and implied that Hoover, not John Dillinger, was the title character.
Now comes Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar," which gives us (in the person of DiCaprio) an entirely new Hoover. Written by "Milk" scribe Dustin Lance Black, it plays very much like a longtime companion piece to "Brokeback Mountain."
Its emotional arc tracks what it believes to be Hoover's long, unconsummated but heartfelt love affair with loyal staffer Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
And there are moments when this works, thanks to an effective performance by Hammer, the impossibly handsome guy who played the Winklevoss twins in "Social Network."
"Network" director David Fincher used Hammer's looks as a snarky joke, a synonym for shallow. But given room to act in "J. Edgar," Hammer is droll and touching as an aristocratic gay man who, for decades, allows Hoover to both deny and rely upon their intensely personal relationship.
Through Hammer, we sense that Tolson likes being close to a powerful man, and we sense that he (and, to a certain extent, the movie) believes in Hoover's mission to build a scientifically competent staff of forensic investigators to bring crime fighting into the modern era.
To that end, Hoover insinuates the FBI into high profile cases such as the Lindbergh kidnapping, the better to persuade Congress to give the FBI more resources - guns, manpower, wiretaps - as he builds the forerunner to our supersized current-day domestic security apparatus, which Eastwood surely intends to be on our minds.
This is conceptually interesting, but it's clumsily delivered by Eastwood, whose movie is a succession of dull interior scenes, expository conversation and fractured chronology.
And the surveillance-state theme has been covered by the above-mentioned "Public Enemy." In Michael Mann's film, Hoover (Billy Crudup) used the pursuit of Dillinger as a publicity tool to expand the powers of a peering, prying, unaccountable bureaucracy.
And Mann was able to do all of that without putting anybody in laughable old-dude latex.
DiCaprio is a tough sell to begin with as Hoover - he's all mannerisms and wardrobe. As an aging Hoover, wearing a latex mask, he looks like he's trick-or-treating. Poor Hammer looks even worse as an old guy, and the distraction is more pronounced, since he's so much more alive as the younger Tolson.
Looking authentically her own age is the redoubtable Judi Dench, Hoover's mother, who stokes her son's ambition and instills in him a fear of his own sexuality - of any sexuality - and perhaps a particular obsession with the sex lives of other powerful men.